Japanese give Vietnam thriving tourism
By Tini Tran
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam With a waist-deep bow and perky "Irasshaimase," Nguyen Thi Nhung greets the small group of young Japanese women who step inside her shop on Dong Khoi Street, the city's shopper's lane.
A Japanese tourist walks past a souvenir seller in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam had a record 205,000 Japanese tourists last year a 34.3 percent jump from 2000 despite a worldwide slump in travel.
Even as the tourism industry worldwide took a huge hit in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Vietnam recorded a jump in tourism figures.
A record 2.3 million foreign visitors 8.9 percent over the previous year came to Vietnam last year. Topping the list were mainland Chinese at 676,000, a 7.9 percent increase, followed by 230,000 Americans, a 10.4 percent increase.
But it was the record 205,000 visitors from Japan a 34.3 percent increase over 2000 who have made the biggest impact.
Their presence in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Sai-gon, has led to a visible change in the tourist-heavy downtown district that houses the colonial-era Opera House and City Hall.
Dozens of trendy restaurants, shops and cafes now cater to Japanese, with signs, menus and staff conversant in the language.
It's a phenomenon largely driven by women on holiday shopping trips, said Harumitsu Hida, Japan's deputy consul general in Ho Chi Minh City.
Many Vietnamese handicrafts are comparable in quality to those in Japan, at a fraction of the cost.
Already enjoying a healthy buzz on the tourist circuit, Vietnam has been basking in its recent ranking as the safest, most stable destination in Asia topping Hong Kong, Australia, and Taiwan in a survey of regional tourism officials after Sept. 11.
Authoritarian security measures and the near absence of Muslims make it the least likely to be exposed to the social unrest plaguing some of its neighbors, said the Hong Kongi based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.
Vietnam saw only a brief slowdown after the U.S. terrorist attacks. Although foreign arrivals dropped by 12 percent in October, they picked up again in November and December.
For the year, tourism revenues rose 12.1 percent to $714 million.
The country's fledgling tourism industry is well on its way, said Tran Thi Ngoc Dzung, deputy director of SaigonTourist, Vietnam's largest tour operator.
The company recorded a 200 percent increase in Japanese clients booking tours last year.
"Saigonese have a very keen business sense," said Dzung. "We can adapt to anything. When we had a lot of French tourists, we learned to speak French. Then everyone learned English."
Nearly 30 percent of SaigonTourist's 6,000 workers have studied Japanese language, Dzung said. Of the company's 53 hotels, about 13 cater to Japanese tourists, she said.
The Japanese consulate estimates that some 8,000 people are studying Japanese at the city's 20 schools.
"The Japanese have become very important for us," Dzung said. "They are the biggest spenders. They can spend $100 to $200 in just one shop. I myself have seen people spend $ 1,000 to $2,000 at a time."